Wetlands and Sagebrush in the Intermountain West


Wetlands are a scarce but important commodity in the arid Intermountain West. By virtue of their scarcity and fluctuating annual volume, wetlands play a critical role in supporting millions of water-dependent birds that utilize or pass through our region in different stages of their life cycle.

Analysis of decades of scientific data has placed wetlands at the forefront of IWJV’s conservation and science investment priorities. When compared to other habitats (sagebrush-steppe, aspen woodlands, Ponderosa pine woodlands, and grasslands), wetlands in the Intermountain West have the highest ecological diversity per habitat type and highest plant community diversity, and thus, provide tremendous value as bird habitat. Unfortunately, however, wetlands are an “at-risk” habitat for a number of reasons related to development, drainage, invasive species, and overuse. Interestingly, wetlands throughout the IW show a strong clumping pattern; that is, 87% of wetlands that occur here are clustered in less than 10% of the land area. Ultimately, this could be good news for science and habitat delivery, as it allows the IWJV and our conservation partners to focus on discreet resources in well-defined regions.

Even so, conservation partners can’t possibly conserve, restore, or enhance, every wetland in such a vast region. Therefore, our Science Team undertook a scientific prioritization process, based heavily on partner research and key conservation planning documents, which identified 18 focal wetland areas (see below image) worthy of continued focus and attention. What’s more, 50% of the wetlands acreage in the entire Intermountain West occurs in these 18 focal wetland areas; this means the IWJV and conservation partners can account for HALF our region’s wetlands resources just by focusing on these well-defined areas. From a return-on-investment standpoint, that signifies promising times are ahead for the understanding and conservation of wetlands in the Intermountain West.

A significant challenge partners face is how to propose and develop suitable conservation actions on wetlands that occur on private lands. Our land ownership study revealed that even though 70% of the land area in the entire IWJV boundary is public or tribal, a disproportionate amount of wetlands (70%) occur on private lands. This private landownership is not surprising, as lower elevation wetlands are more likely to be impacted, fragmented, and developed, but does suggest a potential vulnerability compared to the rest of the region.

To that end, the JV’s “working landscapes” philosophy has shown tremendous potential to build partnerships with private landowners, and many projects have already resulted in win-win situations (our Working Wet Meadows Initiative is one example). In summary, we have identified wetlands as a core focus for our science activities and feel confident that wetlands will provide the highest biological return per science investment made. And with this focus, IWJV and our partners are set to make great strides in advancing the science and delivery of wetlands conservation in the Intermountain West.

Find downloadable GIS data for these landscapes attached on this page.

Read IWJV's wetland conservation strategy in our Implementation Plan here.



Mule deer are a sagebrush obligate species found throughout much of the West.

Sagebrush habitats and associated wildlife species are as risk with millions of acres lost in the last decade due to human activities and shifts in disturbance regimes (i.e., fire).  In addition to sage grouse, other bird and wildlife species depend on a healthy sagebrush ecosystem including species of greatest conservation need. Migratory songbirds include Brewer’s Sparrow, Sagebrush Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, and Sage Thrasher. Other wildlife species that call the sagebrush home include mule deer, pronghorn, pygmy rabbits, sagebrush voles, and sagebrush lizards.

Sage obligate songbirds are heavily dependent on the vegetation structure and species composition of the sagebrush habitats and respond quickly to changes to these habitat features. Moreover, songbird species may respond to improved conditions in sagebrush habitats more quickly than the sage grouse because they have a higher reproductive potential, are short-lived, are more mobile, and are somewhat more flexible in their nesting requirements. These species are also indicators of sagebrush habitat condition and can be used to gauge the effectiveness of conservation actions. 

Resource agencies, conservation groups, agricultural producers, and industry representatives are working proactively and cooperatively to conserve sagebrush birds, other wildlife, and the habitats on which they depend, finding win-win solutions for wildlife and working lands. To learn about IWJV's work on sagebrush habitats, visit www.PartnersInTheSage.com to learn about our partnership with the Bureau of Land Management and others.